It wasn't long after the wall came down in 1989 that I went exploring in eastern Europe. Trains for the most part - they allow you to see things up close, people, infrastructure, traffic, industry, residences. Hotels were still soviet-era, with scorching steam heating in uninsulated tired rooms decorated in politburo formica 1950s style. City centres that had been fought over still bore the scars of shell, shrapnel and small arms fire in the ashlar and brickwork, but around the back and above first floor level on the facades. The easily visible damage was patched.
It must have been twenty years on when I went back for the first time and the change was stupendous. The cars on the streets were new - or newish, mostly under ten years old. Bright shopfronts and consumer goods and services had swamped the historic city centres and everywhere, everywhere, were the same concrete, glass and steel shopping malls filled with exactly the same outlets. Prosperity, of a sort, had arrived. The youngsters wore a simulacrum of what they were wearing in Paris or Munich, at least in the individual parts. The ensemble effect was still a little experimental, not quite as finessed. Boots for the snow, not trainers, for example.
Some old traces remained. On the sidings outside Budapest station small mountains of coal and logs to feed the station's heating covered a two hectare plot. British stations heated, if you were lucky, a waiting room and the staff side of the ticket office. European stations heated everything - the whole station complex other than the platforms. Restaurant, barbers, newsagents, offices and counters. In Budapest the waiting room was large, with solid oak benches in rows like a church seating perhaps 200 - and it was full, in the harsh winter in which I returned, with the poor and elderly. As I watched, a railway official pointed to several persons, alone and in couples, and made the 'out' gesture. They picked up their bags and left, to be replaced by others who drifted in quietly. It reminded me of the children's boating pond in Colchester castle park and 'come in number 14!' Clearly there was a free warmth rationing system in place, understood by the rail officials and the elderly poor. Max parking 2 hours, no return within 1 hour or something.
These were the people who had not been lifted onto the elephant's back, at least not then. For the youngsters, their enthusiasm for the new Europe was understandable. It was an H&M, McDonalds, Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Svarovski, Adidas, Burger King, C&A, Converse, Hervis, KFC, Levis, Nike, Pizza Hut, Schwarzkopf, Sony, Superdry, Swatch, TGI Fridays, Body Shop, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara paradise of post-soviet consumer choice; the same lines, the same stores in the same chrome and glass malls in every city in Europe.
The success of the global corporates in creating new markets for their cars, white goods, phones and consumer goods not only in eastern Europe but throughout what we used to call the second world has been remarkable. They have created a new middle class, hungry for the manna of the factories and plants throughout the globe. Billions have been lifted out of absolute poverty and enough wealth created to allow them to buy 3g phones even in the meanest favelas and barrios.
This has come at a cost. It has been the older, less skilled, less 'agile' in the new terminology, who have paid. Non-metropolitan. C1,C2,D,E in the UK - rural drivers in France. Those who have never seen an upswing since the 2008 crisis, those who have little to lose. From the elephant's forehead to the valley floor of his trunk, these are the losers from globalisation. The corporates have moved their factories from Japan to Wales, then from Wales to Bulgaria, and will soon move again from Bulgaria to Ecuador or Kenya. At each move leaving in their wake broken communities, debt and worklessness, upheaval and disconnection. Coupled with 'State capture' - the takeover of democratic structures by a new privileged, patrician establishment - it is inevitable that social and economic stresses and tensions will roil.
We have a duty, all of us who can still think and write and hold dialogue between us, to resolve this. There MUST come a system of reform and renewal that re-balances power, a change that includes the currently excluded. Those that have captured the State must learn to share - to devolve, decentralise, empower. But above all to recognise that we are One Nation.